A Special Thanks to everyone who attended last week’s PARTCH Ensemble PREMIERES virtual event at REDCAT. We have received an enormous response from people around the globe asking for another chance to see the material.
We are very pleased to now offer the concert online through a special Encore Access portal: for a nominal fee of just $10, patrons can view the entire concert with unlimited access from the comfort of their own home, at any time of day or night.
Click the button below and purchase access to this very special event, and enjoy unlimited views of the groundbreaking PARTCH Ensemble PREMIERES.
Patrons who purchased tickets for the original REDCAT event can redeem their ticket for free Encore Access! Simply email our site administrator at firstname.lastname@example.org and you will receive a free Encore Access code via email.
The Grammy Award winning PARTCH Ensemble returns to REDCAT with seven new works for Partch instruments from Los Angeles-based composers Daniel Corral, Anne LeBaron, Ulrich Krieger, Daniel Rothman, John Schneider, T.J. Troy, and Alex Wand. The second half features the premiere of Sarah Swenson’s choreography of Harry Partch’s Castor & Pollux “A Dance for the Twin Rhythms of Gemini.” The New York Times has celebrated her work as “…wonderful rollicking, hunkering wildness…” This virtual event will culminate in an online virtual discussion with the composers, choreographer, and ensemble members.
The pandemic has been tough on everyone, and we feel very fortunate that, slowly, we’ve been planning our return to what we do best…play this music. 2020 was not the year we planned on, and like so many others, we had to bend and flex and stretch our plans in order to hold onto what matters most…the music.
We took the time laid before us last year to commission six new compositions, created especially for our unique instrumentation, by six different individuals whose long-time commitment to our Ensemble’s future has inspired and illuminated…and now we are preparing to release these new compositions into the wilderness of contemporary music.
We have several great projects in the works focusing on the unique demands of the contemporary music marketplace; over the next several months, we will be releasing newly edited footage from our video archives, telling the story of where we’ve been as an Ensemble, and laying the groundwork for where our group is headed, culminating in our next live performance at REDCAT in early June 2021, itself a mixture of sensibilities as we combine live music and dance to share with audiences both live and virtual.
We are proud to share these new video works with you. Please visit our new YouTube channel, and subscribe to stay informed on our latest video releases, and be sure to sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive updates on upcoming performances, video releases, and microtonal wonder from composers and theorists near and far.
We are saddened by the passing of David Johnson, one of the founding members of PARTCH Ensemble. David was the Head of Percussion Studies at the California Institute of the Arts, where he served on the faculty for 26 years. Several members of the Ensemble studied with David at CalArts, and it was thanks to his recommendations to John Schneider that most of us are in the band. Erin, Matt, Nick, and I all studied directly with David in the CalArts percussion program, and Derek and Alex knew him in the few years before David’s retirement in 2017. Vicki and Alison knew David as fellow faculty members at CalArts…needless to say, our musical lives were greatly entwined, as well as enhanced, through the years we were fortunate enough to spend playing, learning, and laughing alongside David.
David was also an integral part of our ensemble’s success and longevity: for many years, the instruments were kept in David’s garage in his Mt. Washington home overlooking Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium, just over the Los Angeles River. Every year in preparation for our performance season, John and I would set up the instruments in the open room in David’s home: the band spent weeks rehearsing every summer, learning new and challenging music, and strengthening the bonds of friendship and artistry that kept us together for so many years.
This page is a memorial to David, his life, his music, and his genuine love for the arts. We wanted to find as many photos, stories, and memories as we could, and combine them here to give us all a chance to celebrate David’s amazing life and contributions to the Los Angeles musician’s community. If you have a photo, a story, or a quote you’d like to share, please send it to me at email@example.com, and I will continue adding to this page.
David will continue to have a lasting impact on our ensemble. We are in the process of creating an ongoing fund in David’s memory, dedicated to creating new music to be performed on the Partch instruments in our collection. Anyone wishing to support this fund can follow the link below.
We are very grateful for the time we were able to spend making music with David, and his contributions to our group, as well as the impact he had with each of us individually as a teacher, a colleague, and a member of the Los Angeles music scene, will never be forgotten.
– T.J. Troy
Written on behalf of all members of PARTCH Ensemble, past and present
Once Partch had created a working “Chromolodian” in Chicago in 1942, he was finally able to get to work creating the marvelous repertoire that we have come to admire. The instrument, however, was only meant to be a stop gap “instrument of expediency” until he could perfect the so-called “General Keyboard” layout that he had envisaged a decade earlier.
The problem was that with forty-three notes to the octave, his newly adapted standard 61-key, 5-octave reed organ only produced a continuous scale with a range of little more than an octave. The limited tessitura of the “A”-stop could be expanded by pulling the “Z”-stop that engaged a second set of reeds, doubling the notes found on the lowest keys F1-E3 an octave below their initial “A” pitches while pulling the “X”-stop produced those an octave higher than keys F3-F6. Playing the keyboard with just stops Z & X open (without the A-stop) certainly produced a strange discontinous scale when played alone, but they were meant to extend the top to bottom of the initial A-scale.
By 1945, he had adapted a 6-octave, 73-key instrument—changing the name to its final spelling “Chromelodeon”—though that only added a major third to the still rather limited gamut:
Those extra 12 keys also hadn’t solved another basic problem: with so many notes to the octave, playing a simple triad was extremely awkward, taking two hands, compared with the standard keyboard:
So in an effort to create a more hand-friendly keyboard, Partch created an entirely new design, admitting that,
The many impossible stretches on Chromelodeon I in the common harmonic intervals—2/1, 3/2, and 4/3 [octave, fifth, and fourth]—influence the composer toward linear or voice-leading types of music. This is far from a bad influence, but the keyboard distances are limitations which are partially eliminated in Chromelodeon II. This instrument has more keys to the octave in the same octave distance.1
Partch returned to the U.S. in April of 1935 after his extraordinary European sojourn. He hitchhiked to New York, visiting the Carnegie Corporation to ensure that his 6-month grant report had been received, and hurried on to the West Coast, eager to meet his organ at the docks where it would arrive via the Panama Canal:
Los Angeles, April 30, 1935. My entire expenses from Malta to London to Portland to Los Angeles have been $150—food and transportation. I have 1% of my $1,500 left.
I spend a week persuading the customs officials to admit the chromatic organ without duty. And, through friends, a way is ultimately found. Its godmother, in Santa Barbara [quartertone composer Mildred Couper 1887-1974], has offered to keep it and pay for its transportation there. Off it goes again, direct from the dock. (Bitter Music)
He ended up eventually removing all of the reeds that he had so carefully tuned in London and began making a new console in an Adult Education night class wood shop at a Los Angeles high school where he also crafted his first Kithara. He finished work on the ‘new’ Ptolemy in 1940 in Big Sur while staying at the Old Convict Camp in Anderson Creek, where he also finished writing his journal Bitter Music:
Sadly, this new incarnation of the instrument was also unsuccessful, though the reeds would travel once again, this time to Chicago where they would find a new home in what became the composer’s “Chromolodian,” the first of many instruments that would bear that colorful name.
Partch’s now famous exodus from the California coast to Illinois—as immortalized in his unforgettable U.S. Highball/A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip—was instigated by an invitation from a Chicago music lover. Years later, in his typically sardonic retelling, the composer remarked, “Having been through more than six years of California depression, I jumped at the chance to see some Midwest depression (somewhat like a prisoner in the county jail eagerly looking forward to a transfer to the county farm, or vice versa).”
His arrival on October 1, 1941 “…in the dingy, pre-dawn smogginess of industrial Chicago (Genesis),” certainly didn’t dampen his spirits, as just seven weeks later, he was performing Barstow and a few of his Li Po Lyrics at Chicago’s School of Design, sharing the program with a younger California composer named John Cage.
In the coming months, he printed a promotional brochure that described—in the 3rd person—his biography, list of works and instruments. The title page read:
Presenting a Resume of
The Music Philosophy and Work of Harry Partch
Composer — Instrument Builder and Player — Theorist
A Modern Renascence of
the most ancient of civi-
lized Musical Ideals -
In a Flexible Scale
Utilizing new instruments having a
gamut of 43 true tones to the octave.
In it, he describes the nascent Chromatic Organ—née Ptolemy—but goes on to describe it’s expedient surrogate:
Clearly keen to continue his compositional projects, Partch first attempted to adapt an old melodeon (a type of reed organ) that was loaned to him by two harpsichordists that he had recently met. This was, of course, the inspiration for the eventual name of this Adapted organ, in spite of the preliminary spelling, “Hence the name, a melodeon that approaches closer to the chromatic maximum of all “colors,”or gradations of tone (‘Panchromelodeon’).”
The results must have been unsatisfactory, however, as he soon obtained a standard 61-key/5-octave harmonium, replacing its reeds with those he had retuned in London, and using it to compose the second draft of Barstow between December and January. This new version added the keyboard part and another voice, and though the score has been lost, the title page of his original solo manuscript reflects the additions:
He also transcribed his Two Psalms (1932), “The Lord is My Shepherd,” and “By The Rivers of Babylon,” replacing the original Adapted Viola part with the new keyboard.
By the end of February 1941, Partch began performing these pieces along with Six Lyrics by Li Po (voice & Adapted Viola) with two new Chicago acquaintances, organist Gilman Chase & a young tenor called George Bishop. In March, they even recorded them with recording equipment borrowed from the same kind gentlemen that loaned him the melodeon, though Partch was unhappy with the results, writing to one of the officers at the Guggenheim Fund that he, “was not able to experiment to any appreciable extent with placings of the microphones and instruments.” That was not the case the following November when his solo lecture demonstration at the Eastman School of Music produced six excellent 12-inch acetate discs that were forwarded to the Guggenheim in support of the composer’s upcoming grant application.
Partch used the Chicago-adapted Chromolodian for another three years, in spite of shipping damage that occurred when sending it further east for lectures at Bennington and Eastman. This prompted a comment in a letter to Otto Luening, his Bennington host, “All my shipments were damaged. I’ll just have to do something about it. If I could only find a portable reed organ—one that folds up like a suitcase—to adapt, my biggest problem would be solved. I have priced them, but the cheapest I could find was $65. They’re very popular with sidewalk evangelists.”
The instrument survived all of his presentations and—after some repairs in Boston in December ‘43—was featured in his historic debut at Carnegie Hall on April 22, 1944 when The League of Composers presented
A PROGRAM OF COMPOSITIONS ON AMERICANA TEXTS
by HARRY PARTCHArtistsEthel Luening — Soprano Alix Young Maruchess — KitharaHenry Brandt — Chromolodeon, Tin Flutes and Tin OboeHarry Partch — Intoning Voice, Adapted Guitar, Adapted Viola,Chromolodeon, Flex-a-tone
Notice that the keyboard formerly known as Chromolodian had changed its name, but many more changes were on the horizon. In the following decade, the rechristened Chromelodeon would change much more that that!
In 1934, Partch was awarded a grant of $1,500 from the Carnegie Corporation for a year of research in Europe. It became a most amazing odyssey during which he spent many weeks at the British museum digesting ancient and modern volumes on music, visiting the South Kensington Museum where he saw the microtonal organs constructed by Colin Brown, Bosanquet, and General Perronet Thompson that he had only read about in Helmholtz’s Sensations of Tone:
Colin Brown’s Voice Harmonium
Bosanquet’s Enharmonic Harmonium
He also met early music specialists Arnold Dolmetsch and Kathleen Schlesinger, as well as the poets Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats. As Partch reminisced in his journal Bitter Music:
“This is money and a consummation in the recognition of my endeavors that have been long coming—eleven years of effort and three years of begging are behind it—and I wonder if I still have the energy, having spent so much in winning the award to execute my projects:
Project 1: Completion of my Trails of Music, the theoretical basis of my work. I had rewritten this manuscript almost every year since 1926, but the historical background was still woefully deficient, and I proposed to prepare histories of intonation, and of the spoken word in music, at the British Museum in London.
Project 2: The building of a true chromatic organ, or, if this is a misuse of the word true, an organ at least three times as chromatic as the piano. The keyboard of this instrument I had already constructed, as a model.
Project 3: the setting of the entire drama King Oedipus, version by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, to my music, preserving throughout the vitality of the spoken words…
I could spend the whole sum of $1,500 on my chromatic organ—my beautiful dumb keyboard—in a single disbursement, and waste no part of a penny. After all, people spend a thousand dollars on a piano, which is standardized and in mass production, and think nothing extravagant in it. And yet for my keyboard, only one of its kind—parts for which have to be specially made—I can spend, at most, half that much. For my $1,500 must cover all expenses—traveling, living—for a year, and instrument building. In that case it will, by gollies.”
And so it did. He visited Yeats in Dublin, transcribing the exact pitch inflections of the poet’s personal reading of King Oedipus, also travelling to France and Italy.
Upon his arrival in London, Partch procured some brilliantly colored celluloid and spent three weeks constructing a new keyboard in his rented room after long days at the British Museum:
One 2/1 (Octave) of the Ptolemy Keyboard Proper
One Section of the Ptolemy Diamond Keyboard
Before leaving on his travels to the Continent, he canvassed several London organ builders who politely declined the project of building a custom instrument after learning that he had only 100 pounds to spend. He finally engaged Edwin Malkin of Wimbledon who came up with an idea to simplify the mechanical difficulties, and was willing to construct the instrument for $375, providing that Partch produced the keyboard and tune the instrument:
“Shall I gamble? I this idea fails it means I will have no chromatic organ. But on the other hand, if I won’t gamble, I won’t win, and I so hate the idea of going on with only my one little viola to prove all my work.
I gamble, and I am handed a paper: “Received of Harry Partch Esq. £60 on account for organ to be built to specification at £70. With thanks…”
— Bitter Music
Upon his return from Europe three months later, Partch spent two weeks in Wimbledon tuning the reeds as promised, using a special set of tuning forks that he previously had made to specific frequencies for this very purpose.
And the result? His diary tells us:
Wimbledon, London, March, 1935. The chromatic organ is finished! But alas! The wording has a double meaning. I spend two weeks tuning the reeds, and in its intonation it proves all of my contentions, and fulfills my finest hopes. It has forty-three tones to the octave over a three-octave extent, and 268 rainbow-colored keys in a practical analogy with tones.
But its mechanical workings—the ideas that made its construction cheap—are faulty. The action is extremely uneven, and so hard that playing a two-octave scale tires even this piano-trained hand!
But I cling to the hope that adjustments can be made, and I find that it will cost only $40 to ship it direct to Los Angeles. I get an article and a picture in Musical Opinion, the monthly magazine, as a record.
Thus ends Project 2:
Illustration from “A New Instrument,” MUSICAL OPINION—June 1935
A few days later,
“Wimbledon, London, March, 1935. I am talking about possible difficulties with the American customs over my chromatic organ.
“Just say to them,” observes my organ builder, “Listen to this—this is no musical instrument!’”
He has no sympathy for anything post-Beethoven.“
On March 30th, projects ended, money spent, Partch boarded as the only passenger on a freighter loaded with china clay, bound for Portland, Maine, and an America deep in the grips of the Great Depression.
Once Harry Partch had decided on a working scale of 43 ‘true tones’ to the octave, as he called them, he faced the incredible challenge of how to produce them, let alone how to write them down. He first experimented with bowed string instruments by making special paper coverings for their fingerboards, and eventually created his first so-called microtonal instrument by adapting a viola, adding a cello fingerboard onto an extended neck. He first called it a Monophone, “Monophony” being the name that he gave his particular language of just intonation, though soon it was simply called the Adapted Viola. Of course in the traditional world of music, the term monophonic refers to a single line of pitches, and while Partch was initially fascinated in instrumentally reproducing the subtleties of pitch variation found in human speech, he was equally concerned with harmony, and thrilled to the new harmonies revealed by his discovery of just intonation.
Partch’s first attempts at building a harmonic instrument were his Adapted Guitar (1935), followed soon after by the creation of a modern harmonic version of the ancient Greek Kithara (1938). But long before that, Partch dreamed of a keyboard instrument that could reproduce the pure intervals of ratio tuning. He was, after all, an accomplished pianist, and had moved to Los Angeles from Arizona to study with the renowned pianist Richard Buhlig while he attended the University of Southern California. He only lasted at USC for three months, but continued his education via public libraries where he discovered Helmholtz’s On The Sensations of Tone. It was there that he learned about the acoustic inferiority of tempered tuning, as well as the tuning of the ancient Greek modes, scientific measurement intervals with ratios, charts with several different sizes for each of our familiar intervals, measuring units of 1/100th of a semitone (= 1¢) rather than the standard equal-tempered semitone, and most importantly, the concept of Just Intonation.
In fact, Helmholtz had created a harmonium tuned to Just Intonation since, “The harmonium, on account of its uniformly sustained sound, the piercing character of its quality of tone, and its tolerably distinct combinational tones, is particularly sensitive to inaccuracies of intonation.” (Sensations of Tone, p. 316) He chose a two manual instrument with a set of vibrating reeds for each, and tuned them such that the true values for flats were on the upper keyboard, and the sharps on the lower.
Harmonium Reeds pictured in Sensations of Tone
Partch would spend many hours tuning reeds in the coming decades for his numerous keyboards, but he also learned from Appendix of Sensations written by the English translator Alexander Ellis, of even more complex instruments created during the same era that used experimental “generalized” keyboards to handle all of those so-called extra notes:
Mr. Poole’s Enharmonic Organ (1850)
Bosanquet’s Generalized Keyboard (1875)
It comes as no surprise, then, that when Partch designed his first RATIO KEYBOARD in 1932, it also used a very unusual pattern…
Partch’s Ratio Keyboard design (1932)
…and also began his practice of color-coding the numerators & denominators of his ratios.
Partch was so convinced of the efficacy of this design that he constructed a model out of enameled thread spools—the ends filled with plastic wood and varnished corrugated board—and took it to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), hoping to generate enough interest for them to construct the actual instrument:
A Partch demonstration (circa 1933)
Interested they were not, and it would take another few years and a visit to London to find out if his design would actually work.